Binay Reynolds and her husband Bob were told by a close friend that he could make their retirement savings flourish in an investment fund — fixed returns, no risks.
A little more than a year later, the Reynolds found themselves mourning the sudden death of their friend, Joseph Laurer, and shortly after, the loss of the $126,000 they had given Laurer to invest.
The Homestead couple are among the 50 “friends, relatives, and acquaintances” allegedly swindled by Laurer in a Ponzi scheme contained mostly within the bubble of Homestead.
“We were with him when he died,” said Binay, who sat by Laurer’s deathbed in June when he died of lung cancer. “We were really good friends, believe it or not. Now, I know it’s true, but I still can’t believe it.”
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Laurer, a longtime Homestead resident and political ally of former mayor Steven Bateman, is accused of taking $4.7 million from hopeful investors throughout a decade, investing little to no money in securities, and instead diverting it to pay for investor withdrawals and personal expenses, according to a complaint filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Now, investigators are chasing the different accounts tied to Laurer and his company, Abatement Corp. Holding Company Limited, registered in the Turks and Caicos, to locate the swindled funds. The SEC temporarily froze the company's assets, including unnamed ones in the hands of Laurer’s wife, Brenda Davis.
Before his death, Laurer had planted roots in Homestead, getting involved in the city’s politics and becoming close with Bateman, who appointed Laurer to the city’s General Employees Pension Board, and also tried to get him hired as the city’s internal auditor.
Bateman was found guilty of unlawful compensation last month in an unrelated case and will be sentenced Tuesday.
The Homestead Police Department is conducting an investigation to determine whether city dollars were tangled in the scheme.
The Reynolds mingled with Laurer at parties and events at the Moose Lodge, a private club in Homestead, and would occasionally go on trips with Laurer and Davis.
“My husband didn't know how to text until he met Joe,” Binay said. “They would text each other all day long.”
Eventually, Laurer approached them and proposed they take part in his investment fund. Binay says they were joined by friends, and relatives of friends who also put funds into Laurer’s hands.
“We saw a whole bunch of documents on company letterhead. There didn't seem to be anything wrong,” she said. “Everything was on the up and up.”
The prospects looked so good, they pointed Bob’s sister to Laurer.
Joanne Keating, 73, who lives in Avon Park but occasionally visits her brother in Homestead, met Laurer at a Christmas party in 2012. Months later, in two checks, she handed over $135,000 — proceeds from the sale of her childhood home.
“He talked a good game, had a very nice laugh,” she said.
“I asked him, is this money secure? He says, ‘Oh yeah.’ Later, I asked him where my money was invested, and he said in Homestead. And I said, ‘Oh, so I bought a part of Homestead.’ He says, ‘Oh yeah.’ ”
After Laurer’s death, Keating began to wonder about her investment, and heard the SEC had become involved.
“The minute I heard federal government, I knew I’d been taken,” Keating said. “That was all I had.”
Linda Worton Jackson, a Miami-based lawyer who represented investors in the Ponzi scheme involving Nevin Shapiro, the now-imprisoned University of Miami booster, said Laurer was operating a run-of-the-mill scheme, stealing from people he knew.
“Most of the investors were his friends, neighbors, relatives, people who trusted him and knew him. That is typical,” Jackson said.
Binay Reynolds and Keating are both hopeful that they’ll get their money back, though Jackson says the process could take years.
“Other than feeling stupid, I need the money,” Keating said.